The Senkakus are so small, it

An article in the New York Times today has an interesting quote from an unnamed Western diplomat:

Some analysts say the issue might blow over next Wednesday when Japan must decide whether to formally charge the captain or release him. If he is charged, the emotional issue could boil over in China, where protests have already taken place and Internet forums are full of anti-Japanese rhetoric.

“Japan will have to release the captain with a warning or something similar,” said a Western diplomat based in Beijing who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the conflict. “It’s hard to imagine them actually charging and trying him.”

Sentiment in Japan, however, has hardened against China in recent years, with some calling for the country to resist a diplomatic solution and enforce its claims by applying Japanese law. (Link)

I realize that a western diplomat to China isn’t paid to think of things from the Japanese point of view, but let’s do that for a minute. What if Japan just lets China get its way on this minor issue? It sends the signal that:

1. Japanese laws cannot be enforced in the Senkaku Islands, which essentially means that the islands are not Japanese territory. And if the Senkakus are not Japanese territory, they will be, sooner or later, Chinese.

2. If Japan gives in on the Senkakus, it’s open season on the rest of Japan’s contested territorial claims.

3. Bullying (in the form of this orchestrated media-PR campaign against Japan) and breaches of protocol (summoning the Japanese ambassador at midnight, etc.) are acceptable means of executing policy.

4. Chinese political and military power is only going to grow, and the sooner Japan stands up to China and convinces it that Japan can’t be bullied, the better. Japanese and Chinese military power is about even right now, but if at some point China had a decisive advantage it could be tempted to flex muscle.

Charging the Chinese ship captain and sending his case to trial is pretty much is the only option Japan has right now. Japan could have let the captain off with a warning, but China has dramatically raised the stakes to the point where that course of action looks like weakness. It didn’t have to be this way, but China has pretty much put Japan in a corner.

As Nightwatch has said, China’s position in all of this is weak. China’s masking this as a human rights issue is as transparent as a Kleenex. China is alone on this issue, and worse, Japan has plenty of invisible allies–every country that has contested territorial claims with China (Taiwan, South Korea, The Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, India, and Bhutan) is secretly rooting for Japan to push back. Due to Japan and China being trading BFFs the economic pressure China can bring to bear on Japan without is minimal. China cannot whip up too much anti-Japanese sentiment for fear that it will cause Japanese (and Western) investors to shun China’s economy, and that it could inadvertedly nudge Chinese public opinion into demanding a course of action not even the government wants.

It’s hard to see how this ends well for China. It’s also hard to see how anyone in China with a realistic view of China’s geopolitical situation thought this campaign of bad behavior was a good idea to begin with.

So close to China, so far from Japan. It's hard not to sympathize with the basic Chinese position.

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A contributor and editor at the blog War Is Boring, Kyle Mizokami started Japan Security Watch in 2010 to further understand Japan's defenses and security policy.
Kyle Mizokami has 596 post(s) on Japan Security Watch